Blooms of Agency: What a Middle-School Writer Learned from KPREP On-demand Writing

By Justin Sturgeon, Writing Consultant

Several years ago, I had a peer in middle school who became frustrated with a number of recent school policy changes. One week, cafeteria lunches had to begin abiding by new nutrition regulations—burying many of her favorite and familiar dishes. That following week, dress code policies began to be enforced more thoroughly—indubitably ushering in discipline against female students much more directly than their male counterparts. Both changes felt like additional hurdles to my peer in her learning. At this time, she, along with many of our friends became frustrated with these and other changes in school rules that left them feeling unable to express any feeling other than that of submission. They were angry with an entity that had no face, an imagined enemy that could not be named or assigned to a single person.  It also happened to be not long after these experiences that yearly K-PREP testing was about to commence.

This test measures student performance against codified Kentucky academic standards in the major subject areas taught in public schools. Accompanying this test is the usual essay exam question that often champions the standard five paragraph essay that is ingrained into the hearts and minds of public education attendees. One of the hallmarks of the writing section is its plea for crafting an argumentative response to a neatly defined opinion scenario depending on the grade level taking the test. From the time we entered testable grades, we were conditioned to see how important the yearly exam was not only for ourselves but also for our school district. Each year teachers poured their enthusiasm into wishing us well on the test as they laid their trust in our ability to apply what we had learned through the year to those booklets that contained our penciled in answers.

It was on this exam that my peer decided to work out the anger and frustration of navigating middle school as a response to an essay question. Something in the prompt related to a school procedure and my peer leaned into their experience and drafted an argument to lambast the system that garnered the rule changes and heavy thumb this student felt was pressing on her emotions. In making her response, she wrote in a way that directly addressed the reader or grader of this examination and in some ways ignored the goal of the exam—which seeks to measure student writing against a state determined standard. My peer’s writing took on an entirely different form that burnt away the edges of the exam’s intractable parameters. In her best attempt to maintain an academic voice, she pointed her finger at the test grader and gave blame for all the problems that were interfering with her inability to find a voice.

Looking back, I wonder now if only I could hold the clock on that exam and have conversations with my peer about genre, audience, and instruction guidelines—subjects that didn’t matter when pegged with her focus of expressing her frustrations on her own terms. The grader of that exam essay likely glossed over the essay and checked each box when she tried to adhere to the guidelines or address the prompt, ultimately missing her fervor and intent. Perhaps the grader of that exam toted a distinction of incomplete or failing to meet the standard. But, how can one assess bringing awareness of nonnative, invasive plants in a proposed community when the dread of one’s home life looms over waiting until the exam is over and the school day has finished?

My peer in that moment—although failing to meet the On-demand writing standards of the exam—found her voice and did so in a way that forced her to reckon with ideas of audience, tone, and genre. She could have just submitted a myriad, itemized list of concerns or even a stream of consciousness rant that would jump from one thought to the next with hardly any connection. Instead, she knew that she had to make some choices. She kept to the model of the five-paragraph essay and organized her thoughts in a way that would leave no question in the reader’s mind about what issues were occurring and causing her contention. Whether her convictions were rooted in rebellious middle school angst, taking the pulse of the public-school education system, or a mixture of the two—her very real emotional impasse of setting a no.2 pencil to paper had reached its epiphany. In choosing to write about her frustrations and anxieties in a way to address a potential culprit to her issues, she found her agency. In finding her agency she was confronted with the task of taking those frustrations and annoyances and turning them into a portrayable plane for an imagined reader.

Though I would scarcely suggest to students to deviate from their assignment prompts in such a seemingly anarchistic fashion, we (as writing center consultants) do teach them to undertake the journey of funneling those ideas and feelings into a form that a reader can access and engage with. Sometimes students are hesitant to write about a subject in which they hold contentions or reservations about in terms of portraying opposing arguments. These reservations can reach a more abrupt stalemate when students cannot find their agency within the prompt. The challenge of interacting with these prompts is further abstracted by the specificity of state standard which assess student performance in a vacuum. Indeed, much more could be said about the just debate in propping standardized on-demand writing up as the supreme measurement of student performance when schools with higher levels of poverty uniformly score lower on these exams that measure a single notion of writing.

At times, writers face a similar dilemma of channeling their emotions and feelings into their writing to address their audience. We at the writing center are jubilant to work with students whether they are beginning to engage with finding agency or are already in tune with their agency as they develop and become more aware of themselves and how they communicate with others in meaningful ways.

Our LGBTQ+ Writing Group: Explained and Explored

Liz Soule, Assistant Director for the University Writing Center

The first time I was introduced to a writing group was in the spring of 2016. As a way to welcome more students to the writing center, one of my friends and co-workers proposed the “Creative Writing Jam.” This was a series of creative writing groups held at the writing center, in which writers would come in, and amongst a community of like-minded individuals, get to work drafting their latest piece.

I hung posters advertising the event on the walls of my residence hall. I remember looking at the posters and feeling a mixture of confusion, anxiety and curiosity at the sight of them. Who would want to write in a big group? Wouldn’t that be distracting? Or worse, what if my writing wasn’t like theirs — and they judged me for it? Due to my trepidation, I never attended the Creative Writing Jam.

Now, as the facilitator of the LGBTQ+ writing group, I often wonder if these same questions keep folks from attending our group. This blog post is written for all those who stare at our whiteboard and wonder. In what follows, I’ll explore what our LGBTQ+ writing group is, why we offer it, and offer a window into what a typical group meeting looks like. My hope is that this begins the process of answering some burning questions and alleviating anxieties, and maybe opens our doors to more writers across campus.

What is the LGBTQ+ writing group? Why do you offer it?

The LGBTQ+ writing group is a gathering of writers that meets monthly in the University Writing Center. This group welcomes writers that self-identify as LGBTQ+ or as allies to join together to write in a communal space. Any kind of writing is welcome in this group (professional, personal, creative or course-related). During group meetings, participants have the opportunity to get to know others in the community as they actively write alongside their peers.

The LGBTQ+ writing group, like all of the University Writing Center’s writing groups, exists to promote a culture of writing across campus. An additional reason why we offer the LGBTQ+ writing group is to foster a supportive community of queer writers and their allies. This means that the identities of LGBTQ+ writers are respected (and, when appropriate, celebrated) and their writing is welcomed. By carving out a space for LGBTQ+ writers, the University Writing Center makes it clear that our growth as writers matters, and that we belong.

I would argue that we are working to effectively serve that purpose, too. At a recent meeting, I asked the attendees of the group what their reasons for attending were. One writer said they were looking for a “judgment-free,” or supportive community of writers. Another writer, who often writes queer romances, said they sought a space where the content of their writing would be welcome. For others, it came down to basic math – likeminded queer people to befriend plus writing to share and enjoy. In other words, a supportive community that fosters a culture of writing.

What happens in a typical meeting?

In this next section, I’ll try to illustrate what a typical writing group meeting looks like. While my description might not be as dynamic as the real thing, I hope that it can help reduce any anxieties that come with the unknown.

At the start of each LGBTQ+ writing group, the University Writing Center door is wide open. Everyone signs in, grabs a snack, and finds a seat amidst the circle of tables. Once we’ve all settled in, we share our names, our personal pronouns and the kinds of writing we’re working on.

Then comes the fun part: we write! For the majority of our hour-long meeting, we all actively write. And there is really no wrong way to do this. Some of us complete homework, while others write creatively. Some even complete personal writing, like daily journaling. During this time, some of us chat, others listen to music, and most of us get seconds on snacks.

To wrap our meeting up, we talk about the kind of writing we’ve completed–and what we hope to accomplish in the near future. Some writers like to share recent writing during this time, but no one is ever forced to do so. Those that do receive thoughtful, positive responses. Afterwards, we say our goodbyes and I close the doors of the University Writing Center for the night.

This sums up most of our LGBTQ+ writing group meetings. There are some variations to meetings, but they’re usually small and always optional. For example, next time we meet, I’ll be bringing some prompts for the creative writers in the room to respond to, if they so choose. Also, a couple of our writers are also thinking they might workshop as a pair.

Some final thoughts

If you’ve been on the fence about attending this–or any–writing group, I hope this guides you to our doors. In the event that you have more questions, please, feel free to e-mail us at writing@louisville.edu, and we will happily discuss our groups with you.

More importantly, I hope that you know you are always welcome in our space. I’ll be glad to have you in the LGBTQ+ writing group, and we are excited to have you in the University Writing Center.

Let It Simmer

Todd Richardson, Writing Consultant

“I have to get it done,” the student says. She sits across the long table from me in the university lounge where I hold office hours. I’m a writing professor at a small liberal arts school in Western Kentucky. Her hands hover over her laptop, shaking and white. Her mask pulses with her breath, the cloth sticking to her lips then puffing out like a balloon. Outside, the leaves are brilliant—gold, crimson, orange. The breeze is crisp, brisk, earthy. I suggest it’s time for a break, perhaps take a walk without our masks, peep some foliage.

“I have to get it done,” she says. I wait for her to ask questions, but she doesn’t speak. Instead, she stares at her screen. Her typing comes in bursts, first in words, then in rapid deletions. After a few minutes, she throws up her hands and sinks her face into her palms. “I can’t,” she says. She tells me she sleeps four hours a night. She wants to graduate in no more than four years, fewer if possible. That’s why she’s enrolled in seventeen hours for Fall of 2020. She wants to do well in college, like she did in high school. Even in the pandemic, she managed to keep her grades up through her senior year. Then, in college, where the institution decided to teach a hybrid in-person/asynchronous model to cope with covid, she floundered. “I work all the time,” she says. “I never get ahead.”

I look back out the window, watch the leaves sway in the air. They seem peaceful. They breathe and sway. I know that what I have to tell my student isn’t what she wants to hear. I know because it’s not what I wanted to hear when I lived through a similar experience in grad school. It’s the same advice I’m advocating for here, and it’s counterintuitive to everything on your syllabus, everything your guidance counselor told you, every shred of the individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture that you internalized from your parents or the news or however it made its way under your skin. Admittedly, it’s advice that I still struggle to follow to this day.

“Maybe you need a break,” I say to her. She shakes her head.

“I can’t.”

“You think you can keep writing?” She pauses, doesn’t answer. Then she shakes her head, rises, and shuffles out the door. I don’t know if my advice landed or if she’s just too tired to sit here anymore. As I watch her gather her things, a pang of empathy tightens in my stomach. I was just like her as a student. I wish I’d taken it easier on myself.

In graduate school, I worked at a similar pace to my student sitting across from me—always writing, reading, stressing, obsessing, striving for some academic, pie in the sky, attaboy. I kept articles and books stacked high on my nightstand and in piles next to my bed. I slept in fits—an hour and thirty minutes here, a toss and turn there. Eventually I gave up on the REM cycle and woke up to write the next term paper, the next prospectus, the next page or paragraph or chapter of my thesis. I managed—thrived actually—in the first year. I’m fine, I told people who commented on the dark circles under my eyes. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

Then, as time passed, a mental sluggishness set in. It started as spacing out in class discussion. You’d find my body in its seat, but my mind had left orbit some time ago. I forgot what I was saying in the middle of a sentence. Then the fog spread to reading. My eyes would scan articles but would not absorb their meaning, as if my vision would bounce off the text. I became irritable with my friends, parents, and wife. Then the haze came for my writing. I stared at the blank, white snowdrift of my word processor, the cursor blinking on and off like a flickering synapse in my skull. Words would not come. Thoughts ran together in long, incomprehensible sentences. Quotes went without citations. Phrases repeated themselves without my awareness.

Eventually, panic set in. It started with feedback on an essay that read, “Todd, not your best work. Better luck next time.” After that, I entered every class with icy fingers and a tightening chest. It was all I could do to breathe, to lift my gaze to meet my instructors’. I felt the control over my own body seeping away and I was helpless to stop it. One night I got an email from my thesis advisor. The subject heading read: Todd—Chapter 3 Draft, Revision Needed. I didn’t get a chance to open the message. The edges of my vision darkened. I inhaled sharp sips of air. My knees buckled. I thought I was dying. My wife and my brother-in-law (he happened to be spending the night at our house) carried me to the bed. I regained consciousness in time to stop my wife from dialing 911. I had experienced my first full-fledged anxiety attack.

I wonder now what would have happened had I known the importance of taking a break. Not just because it’s good for your mental health—it’s good for your brain and productivity, too.

First, in order to be efficient, your brain needs time to be inefficient. What “inefficient” looks different depending on your personality, but a good suggestion for anyone in school—especially those of us in the middle of the second year of pandemical education—is to move around. Go for a walk. Dance. Kickbox. Or get all woo-woo and meditate, get a vinyasa flow in before hitting the draft again and take ten deep breaths. When you have more time, like right after you’ve submitted your paper or are just plain ol’ done for the night, do something that refills your mental gas tank. Video games, LARP, play a board game—whatever floats your raft down the river. Don’t take a break forever; we have deadlines and GPAs and life to keep up with. Set a timer for twenty minutes to write and twenty minutes of breaktime and stick to it. There will be times when you can’t take a break (life has a way of lobbing emergencies at us in the middle of finals), but make sure that you set aside time to let your mind wander wherever it needs to go.

Second, walking away from the keyboard is actually good for writing (and let’s go ahead and extend this to proofs, algorithms, presentations, and the like). Again, don’t walk away forever—I’m not saying that your term paper will write itself while you Fortnight the afternoon away. What I’m getting at is, let your writing simmer. Even if all you have is ten minutes, it’s good to set your draft aside and let it stew. Pounding your fingers against the keyboard until they bleed leads to a law of diminishing returns; over time, you will earn fewer rewards than the amount of energy you invest. Trust your subconscious to mull over your topic for a bit. You might find that your mind approaches your draft with fresh ideas, newfound energy, and a special zazz that makes your writing come to life.

Finally, taking a break is good for you. You have experienced what no other generation in the last one hundred years underwent; a global pandemic and one of the most prolonged disruptions to everyday life in recent American history. There’s nothing wrong with deciding to take a breath, to take time to feel the grass beneath your feet, to finding the peace in the reddening of the leaves. You are worth the decision to walk away.

This fall, you might hit a wall. That moment when your vision goes bleary and your eyes scan the article, you’re supposed to read but you can’t remember for the life of you what the words mean, when you’re staring at the blinking cursor on the blank page and your thought faucet feels clogged, take a break. Get woo-woo. Go for a walk. Let whatever you’re working on simmer on the back burner for as long as you can. Your brain will thank you for it.

A Sisyphean Task

Zoë Donovan, Writing Consultant

There is a quote from the Tenth Anniversary Edition of American Gods by Neil Gaiman in the introduction that at the time I first read it in 2016 seemed trivial, unimportant and just a bit pretentious.

“I remember when it [American Gods] was all done in first draft telling Gene Wolfe, who is the wisest writer I know and has written more excellent novels than any man I’ve met, that I thought I had now learned how to write a novel. Gene looked at me, and smiled kindly. “You never learn how to write a novel,” he told me. “You only learn to write the novel you’re on.”He was right. I’d learned to write the novel I was writing, and nothing more.” – Neil Gaiman American Gods (Tenth Anniversary Edition)

Since reading those words I have written an innumerable amount of novellas, short stories, poems, audio dramas, plays, and of course essays. Looking back, I’ve found that in every piece of writing, no matter how similar the subject material it may be to other previous works, this statement stands true.

                And yet, every time I finished a project I would find myself in the same line of thinking that Gaiman had at the end of the first draft. “I’ve finally figured out how to write!” And yet, every time I’d start a new project I would crumple into an agonizing state of imposter syndrome. Suddenly, it’s hard again and the words don’t fit right, the flow is off, my characters are stock image facsimiles of how I imagined, the page is blank, erased over and over again or scratched out ,and I can’t shut off the never ending rant telling me I’ve been deluding myself the entire time. I would find myself asking, how can I even consider myself a writer if it’s always this difficult for me.

                Since then, I have come to believe that it is a myth that someone can be a good writer or a bad writer. Throughout my experience I have found that Gaiman and Wolfe, in true fashion of their profession, stated something fundamental to the writing process. I only really grasped the weight of what this meant to me as a writer upon a reread of the book in 2020. We learn to write the things that we are working on. We learn to hone it into something that the intended audience will understand. No project will ever be the same, and you don’t ever really learn how to “Write”.

 Writing is a Sisyphean task. It is a grueling process that can at times be quite enjoyable, but at other times can feel like walking across broken glass. With the start of every new project, the boulder has rolled back down the hill and you find yourself cursing the writing gods for your own hubris. I say it’s a myth to be a good writer but a caveat is needed. The only thing that I believe separates a good writer and a bad writer is perseverance. Whether that perseverance looks like 100 words a day or 5,000 words a day, putting pen to paper is what matters, whether a project takes you ten hours or ten years, when it is finished you will have learned how to write that piece. No project will ever be the same as the last. You can bring in existing knowledge and skills, but at the end of the day you won’t know how to write that paper until you’ve already written it. 

                You will never know where to begin, where to end, and what exactly happens in between until you actually the piece. There will be tears, frustration and so much revision. But these stages help you, and you take something onto the next project that you didn’t know before, though as writers we are always growing, and it will never be exactly the same process.

“Tomorrow is the day”: Thoughts on Writer’s Block and Procrastination

Derrick Neese, Writing Consultant

I am going to write tomorrow. I mean it. Tomorrow is the day I’m starting my next big story and there is nothing that can stop me. And it will be the best story I’ve written—knock your socks off good—but, you know, tomorrow. Why not today? Because I’m a little tired right now, and there is a baseball game starting in an hour, and, well, tomorrow is the day I said I’d start. Tomorrow it is.

            My personal best streak of “tomorrow is the day” was a year. A year of guilt, anxiety, and frustration renewed each afternoon, starting the moment I told myself tomorrow is the day, a cycle of hopelessness that paralyzed my fingertips. Right before my monumental run, I’d set the goal of writing 2,000 words a day—even achieving it once or twice. Then I failed a few times and moved the goal post when stress replaced joy, shifting down to 1k, then a page, and finally, after all the satisfaction was sucked out, a year of nothing. But here I am today, writing in my office on a bit of a hot streak. So what changed?

All it took was writing one minute a day. This isn’t a gotcha moment. I’ve talked to a lot of writers, from teens who write fanfic on internet forums to famous authors with seven-figure book deals. The one thing I’ve noticed that we all share is anxiety for the next draft. This feeling is insidious, stomping out creativity for sport, chasing down the characters and storylines we have imagined and hiding them from our creative selves. We stop ourselves before we even start. To be a writer, you have to write, it’s as simple as that. Each morning I make my coffee, sit down at my desk with my phone far away in a distant land, and write for one minute. What happens is this: I never write for one minute, it’s the biggest lie I’ve ever told myself. Sometimes I end up with a few pages, others, a few sentences. The real magic comes from a lack. Lack of guilt, lack of fear, lack of writer’s block. All (mostly) gone. I am free to tell my stories now, to write my research papers, and above all, to just write.

            But the war for creativity doesn’t simply stop when I sit down, because the next clash starts during the drafting process. My creative and editorial brains are mortal enemies in my head, each fighting to have the lead role in my next story until tomorrow comes. So, I make a deal with my internal editor. Let me write today until all the words are down, I beg them. And then it’s all yours. I grant my creative self the opportunity to write freely in this moment, without judgment or fear, allowing the draft to be as bad as it can be. Often, it is really, really bad. And that’s okay. When I finish, I put it away until the characters call my name again, and then I hand over control to my editorial brain. They have been patiently waiting for this moment after all. I give them permission to revise critically (as opposed to judgmentally, which lends itself to a finality that does not exist in our drafts) until each sentence, word, and comma are where they want them to be. This is where craft meets creative. In this way, I stifle the battle between creator and editor, giving each the freedom they crave.

As writers, we must fight the good fight against tomorrow. We do this in the name of creativity and craft. Without them, we are lost before we begin, and therefore defending them is our primary focus. This is an unseen battle that permeates through the deepest crevices of our writerly minds. We must protect both creator and editor at all costs. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of tomorrow.

So, write for one minute a day, today.

In-Person or Online, We’re Still Here And We’re Still Talking about Writing

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

For the first time in almost 18 months we have been arranging tables, stocking up on handouts, and dusting off shelves in anticipation of once again holding in-person writing consultations. On Thursday we welcomed our new group of writing consultants for orientation and once again the University Writing Center was full of conversations about how best to help writers in the UofL community learn strategies for being more effective writers as well as gain a stronger sense of confidence and agency about their writing. One thing we have missed in the last year, given the kind of collaborative dialogue that is at the foundation of teaching writing the way we do, is the kind of nuance and richness that comes from in-person conversations. Though we value the online video chat and written response appointments we held last year – and will continue to hold this year – we are also excited at the opportunity to talk to writers face to face again.

University Writing Center Staff – 2021-22

Of course, the fact that only half of each face will be visible is a reminder of the range of physical, logistical, and emotional challenges we all continue to confront. We are returning to a campus where masks are mandatory, in a city and state were delta variant cases among the unvaccinated are skyrocketing. Though all of our staff are vaccinated, we are not immune to anxiety or the distraction that comes from the ongoing uncertainty all around us. We will be adopting myriad modifications and practices to do our best to keep everyone safe. It’s certainly not a return to 2019.

Even so, our plan is to move ahead and, whether in person or online, do the best we can to use constructive dialogue to help writers address their individual concerns about their work. We will continue to listen carefully during appointments and respond with suggestions that writers can use to rethink and revise their work to make it as engaging as possible. And we will do our best to create a safe and supportive space where writers can try out new ideas – and sometimes make mistakes – and then be able to try again. There may be many uncertainties ahead in the coming year, but we will – as always – be committed to starting where writers are, with their concerns, and working toward honest, constructive conversations about writing that emphasize collaboration and creativity.

We are excited about the year ahead and the chance to help writers do the important work of communicating the ideas they are passionate about to the world around them.

Writing Groups and Events

In addition to our individual consultations, we will continue to offer other ways to support and sustain writing at UofL. Once again we will facilitate writing groups for Graduate Students and Faculty, Creative Writers, and LGBTQ+ Writers. For graduate students we will offer workshops on writing issues and our annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. We will sponsor events, from our annual Halloween Scary Stories Open Mic Night (co-sponsored with Miracle Monocle), to our celebration of International Mother Language Day. What’s more, we will continue our community partnerships with the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library and Family Scholar House.

We wish everyone a safe and fulfilling year and we look forward to working with you soon.

Helping Western Branch Library Revive the “Cotter Cup” as a Student Poetry Contest

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

One of our goals in our ongoing community partnership with the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, is to create programming and tutoring that not only engages young people in writing and reading, but also connects to and supports the distinctive and important history of this library. The Western Branch library, built in 1908, and the first library in the nation to serve and be fully operated by African Americans has a history of significant contributions to the city’s West End. One of those important contributions was the founding in 1913, by Louisville educator and poet Joseph Cotter, of an annual storytelling contest. The “Cotter Cup” was a ‘storytelling bee,’ intended to encourage children to read and learn through the art of storytelling.

A couple of years ago, Natalie Woods, branch manager of the library, raised the idea of reviving the Cotter Cup as a writing contest. Her vision was of a Cotter Cup in which Louisville K-12 students would produce creative writing and be supported in that work through consultations of University Writing Center staff. The goal of the contest would be to encourage creative writing in the community and to connect K-12 students with writing support and conversations with our university writing consultants. We were excited at the possibility and have been delighted to work with Natalie and her staff on planning and implementing the contest. On our end, Edward English, our Assistant Director for the University Writing Center, organized and facilitated scheduling and supporting the consultations.

It has been a great experience to take part in the inaugural Cotter Cup poetry contest. Although the pandemic necessitated that the contest and consultations take place online this year, we had a great time working with dedicated and imaginative students from across grade levels and across the city. All the participants in the contest received books and writing journals, funded by the UofL English Department Thomas R. Watson Endowment. The winners also received prizes and will have their names engraved on the new “Cotter Cup.” You can read the winning poems here! It was also meaningful, during the pandemic year when so many programs were cancelled and put on hold, to have the chance to create a new program with our community partner and connect to students across the city. We hope that this year’s contest is just the first of what will be a growing and important writing event in our community.

Our consultants also had a great time working with the young writers from across the city. Here is what some of them had to say about the experience:

Ayaat Ismail: I was completely taken aback by these young writers’ creativity and drive during our meetings. It was truly inspiring to watch such young students brainstorm ideas and write poems based on their interests and experiences, whether limericks, free verse, or narratives, as they immersed themselves in poetry and demonstrated their talents and capabilities. It made me appreciate writing in a whole new way, as well as the concept of progression and learning in general.

Caitlin Burns: I really enjoyed being able to tutor elementary students for the Cotter Cup. They were so creative and energetic. I loved hearing their ideas for their poems and working with them, and I learned quite a bit from them as well. It was so lovely to get out of my grad school bubble a bit and have fun playing with words with them. Thanks for all of your and the Writing Center team’s work putting it together!

Alex Way: It was a great experience tutoring students for the Cotter Cup. I worked with an elementary school student who produced an amazing poem and ended up winning first place. Not only was his work exceptional, but he had a deep knowledge of poetry forms and what makes good poetry. Even though I only tutored my student for one session (and he did all the hard work), I can’t help but feel proud of what he has accomplished

Edward English: Working as a consultant for the Cotter Cup was one of the most rewarding activities I’ve done this year.  It was so fun and encouraging to work with such promising young writers and be inspired by their creativity and intelligence.  It was also an incredible honor to be part of contest which continues the exceptional legacy of Joseph Cotter and Western Branch Libraries.

Maddy Decker: I really enjoyed expanding my tutoring horizons from working with college students to also working with high school and elementary writers. I feel like I learned more about myself as a tutor and about what creative writing looks like at different levels. As someone who started writing poetry and short stories in middle school, I’m glad to see so many young writers putting themselves out there, and I hope they continue to explore their talents!

A Week of Community and Hospitality at the Dissertation Writing Retreat

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

This May, for the tenth time, we held our annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. Over the ten years we have held these Retreats, we have worked with doctoral student writers from every college in the University – more than 150 writers during that decade. The Retreat offers writers time and structure to focus on writing their dissertations and daily writing consultations to get feedback on their writing. In addition, each day there are morning and afternoon check-in meetings to set goals for the day and talk about accomplishments and daily small group discussions at lunchtime about writing issues such as structuring a dissertation, time management, and editing and citation issues. Again, this year, the Retreat took place online. (If you want a blast from the past, here is a blog post from that first Retreat in 2012).

The Dissertation Writing Retreat is a busy time – and a lot of work – on our end, but it is also reliably one of the highlights of our year. It’s always exciting to see the writers who attend both make progress on their writing. Yet, just as important, is the ways in which writers develop and refine their writing processes and their approaches to navigating the complexities of audience, genre, and authorial position necessary to write an effective dissertation. At the same time, our writing consultants, who are all doctoral students themselves, always talk about the things they learn during the Retreat about writing and new approaches to teaching writing. In this way, the Dissertation Writing Retreat is a vivid example of the ethic and theory of “hospitality” that we work from in the University Writing Center. Based on the work by Richard and Janis Haswell, hospitality as an approach to education draws from traditional conceptions of hospitality in which a guest and host are both understood to bring value to an encounter and in which reciprocity is a cultural norm. During the Retreat, we always hear how both the writers and consultants learn from each other and, even in just a week, for a supportive community of writers.

Here, in their own words, is a sense of how some of the writers and consultants benefited from the Retreat

First the writers:

Charlotte Asmuth, English. I got so much out of the Dissertation Writing Retreat! I was surprised at how much work I could accomplish in just one week. I came into the week with some writing anxiety and concerns about how to organize particular sections of two chapters. As I worked on my writing and talked with my consultant and other participants in small groups, I learned that I wasn’t alone and I also picked up some strategies for managing my writing time that really helped. In one week, I learned more about my writing process and what will help me write than I’ve learned in several years. For example, outlining and then writing in chunks helps me––as does closing my email, turning my phone off, and writing down concerns as they arise so that I can come back to them later (instead of trying to solve them right away). I’m leaving the week with a great set of strategies to maintain momentum on my dissertation and I’m going to stay in touch with several participants, too.

Doroty Sato, Social Work. The Dissertation Writing Retreat 2021 gave me the resources to continue improving my writing skills. Beyond that, it gave me confidence that I am on the right track. There are so many factors playing a role in this process, so struggling with academic writing is okay. It is not a shame. The Writing Center Team and my colleagues in the group did such an excellent job offering advice and listening to our concerns without judgment. I felt comfortable and included. At the end of the week, my takeaway is that academic writing could be painful sometimes (or most of the time 🙂), but it doesn’t have to be unpleasant.

Eric Shoemaker, Humanities. At the beginning stages of my dissertation writing process, it was important to me to sit down and strategize my own writing processes and procedures. The dissertation writing retreat and my consultant helped me figure out what works for me and what doesn’t and helped me to value all of the work that I do for my project, not just the page count. This was a very valuable and enjoyable experience!

And our consultants:

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing: The 2021 dissertation writing retreat was, among many things, a period of reflection, especially for the writers I had the opportunity to work with. The writers’ reflection during the week-long writing retreat encouraged them, both of whom have been stuck at some point in their writing due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, to feel more motivated to get back into their dissertation work. Through their reflective efforts as well as conversations during the retreat, these writers could identify what they have done well so far and where/what seems not to be going right. Likewise, as shared by both writers, the retreat has inculcated in them a habit of the mind necessary to create and stay committed to a consistent writing schedule as they continue to write from home

Megen Boyett: This is the third time I’ve worked the Dissertation Writing Retreat. Every year, I find it so rewarding to help a dissertation take shape even just for a week. The deep, sustained focus on the individual writer’s project and process seems to be such an effective way to start the summer writing “semester.” Just like last year, I started the week unsure whether I had useful advice for bio-engineers. Once again, I quickly found that while disciplinary differences are real, the principles for shaping long-term projects and organizing clear writing are consistent.

Nicole Dugan, Assistant Director for the Virtual Writing Center. I completed my first year at the UWC by working as a consultant during the 2018 DWR, and now I’ve come full circle, ending my time at the UWC with this year’s retreat. Working with writers is always so rewarding, and dissertation writers are no different. They bring such passion and excitement to their work, and it’s easy to quickly immerse yourself in the environment of camaraderie and growth built by the leadership and participants of this retreat. The last two years I have been focused on my work with writers in my courses and writing centers, and I haven’t found much inspiration or time for my own writing. After this week, I feel recharged and ready to revisit research projects and creative writing with new momentum and vision. I’m grateful for the community of this retreat, and I am particularly thankful to my two writers whose projects are such intriguing and necessary works that offer new insights and avenues for change in their fields. It was a privilege working with them both, and I can’t wait to see where they take their work moving forward.  

THANKS FOR ALL WHO MADE THIS POSSIBLE

It is important to acknowledge the people who did the hard work of organizing the Retreat – Cassie Book, our Associate Director, organized and oversaw the Retreat this year. Also central to carrying out the Retreat were Amber Yocum, our Administrative Associate, and Assistant Directors Edward English, Olalekan Adepoju, and Nicole Dugan. Our other consultants were Megan Boyett, Aubrie Cox, Cooper Day, and Liz Soule. And thanks to Dean Paul DeMarco, of the Graduate School, for again sponsoring and supporting the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

Keeping Our Commitment to Writers in Deeply Unsettling Times: A Year in Review

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

I’ve been struggling with how to start this version of my annual, end-of-year blog post. Every attempt to find words to convey how the extraordinary events of the past nine months, from pandemic to protests to political insurrections, have affected us in the University Writing Center quickly crumbles to cliché. At the same time, just a proud listing of accomplishments doesn’t seem appropriate to capture what has happened in the past year. So I think I’ll leave the big themes to someone else and just keep it simple.

I am always proud of the people who work in the University Writing Center and often tell people we’ve got the best Writing Center staff in the business. Yet it would be hard to overstate how special this year’s staff has been. As you may know, we have a completely new staff of MA Graduate Teaching Assistants as consultants each year. Despite the challenges of having to learn how to conduct all their consultations online, under the public health protocols of the pandemic, this group of consultants were consistent in their commitment to helping and supporting UofL writers. Whether they were working, in their masks, from our on-campus space, or from their homes, our consultants continued to listen carefully to writers and to provide excellent advice about writing, and empathetic support about how to navigate, and respond, to writing in such deeply unsettling times.

The less visible, but every bit as essential, part of our work happens behind the scenes with our administrative staff who kept everything organizationally running smoothly given the unprecedented challenge of having both writers, and often consultants, scattered all over the city (and beyond). It is a testament to their creativity, patience – and tenacity – that the organizational aspects of the things ran splendidly, allowing the consultants and writers to focus on issues about writing. This year, as in every year, the work done by Associate Director Dr. Cassandra Book,  Administrative Associate Amber Yocum, and Assistant Directors Edward English, Olalekan Adepoju, and Nicole Dugan was simply indispensable to everything we accomplished.

Though it may be hard to appreciate from the outside, conducting all writing consultations online is a far more challenging teaching context than conducting appointments in person. For our consultants and our administrative staff, having to work completely online, while dealing with taking their own courses online, technological glitches, screen fatigue, physical isolation, students in the Library not wearing masks, and the political turmoil all around us, really has been truly extraordinary. It has also been exhausting. Like everyone else, we’re tired. It’s been hard on all of us and that is important to acknowledge. What I am proud of – and moved by – is that all of the University Writing Center staff, weary as they are, have done their best to remember that the writers bringing their work to us are also weary and stressed and worried about their writing. We have done our best all year to keep the writers’ needs at the forefront and to provide the individual, one-to-one response that is the core of our work in the University Writing Center. It’s been amazing to watch.

Thanks to the Best Writing Center Staff in the Business

Our superb, dedicated, and brilliant consultants make such a significant difference in so many UofL writers’ lives. Our consultants this year have been Michelle Buntain, Lauren Cline, Maddy Decker, Amanda Dolan, Chuck Glover, Ian Hays, Andrew Hutto, Ayaat Ismail, Zoe Litzenberg, Demetrius Minnick-Tucker, Cat Sar, Spenser Secrest, and Emma Turner. Also special thanks go to Writing Center Intern Kendyl Harmeling. Our amazing student workers were Mikaela Smith and Jency Trejo.

We want to give our special thanks and congratulations to Jency Trejo, on her graduation with her BA in English. Jency joined us as a student worker during her first semester at UofL and has been a central and important part of the University Writing Center ever since. We wish her all the best in the future.

We will be open during the summer, starting May 10, from 9-4 every weekday. You can find out more on our website. You can also follow us on our blog and on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Beyond Tutoring – Writing Groups, Retreats, Community Writing

Writing Groups, Workshops, and Dissertation Writing Retreats: Our popular LGBTQ+, Faculty and Graduate Student, and Creative Writing writing groups continued to give UofL writers supportive communities through which they could create and talk about writing. We again held our annual spring Dissertation Writing Retreat  as a fully virtual Retreat. We plan next year to continue all of these groups, so be sure to check our website for information and dates.

Community Writing and the Cotter Cup: We also continued our work with our community partners, the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library and Family Scholar House. Once again we are grateful for the participatory and collaborative partnerships with these organizations. You can find out more about these community writing projects, including how to get involved with them, on our website.

We were particular excited to collaborate with the Western Branch Library on re-establishing the “Cotter Cup” competition. In the early 20th Century Louisville poet and educator Joseph Cotter established a storytelling competition for local youth called the “Cotter Cup.” We worked to support Western Branch Library in re-establishing the Cotter Cup as a poetry contest. As part of the contest, local K-12 students had individual writing consultations with our University Writing Center consultants. The contest entries will be judged by local poets with an awards celebration next month. We hope that this will become an important and vital part of writing in the community going forward.

Writing Center Staff Achievements

The University Writing Center is also an active site of scholarship and creative work. Staff from the Writing Center were engaged in a number of scholarly projects during the past year in rhetoric and composition, literature, and creative writing.

Cassandra Book, Associate Director, gave a presentation on “Passing or Trespassing?: Asynchronous Tutoring, Consultant Practices, and Center Ethos” at the 2021 Southeastern Writing Center Association Conference.

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing, gave a presentation titled,presented a paper on “Discursive Practices in Recurring Asynchronous Consultations:  Implications for Peer Tutoring” at the 2021 Southeastern Writing Center Association Conference. He also published the essay, “Rethinking Tutor-Writer Engagement in Asynchronous Consultations: A Conversational Approach to Recurring Witten Feedback Appointments” in The Dangling Modifier .

Consultants

Michelle Buntain completed her MA Culminating Project, titled,”To Listen is to Witness: Discovering Suffering Through Literary Analysis.”

Maddy Decker was an intern for the Miracle Monocle Literary Magazine in Spring 2021 and served as editor of reviews. She also completed her creative MA Culminating project titled “Register 16.”

Amanda Dolan was an intern for the Miracle Monocle Literacy Magazine and will have a book review published in the upcoming issue.  She also completed her creative MA Culminating project titled “Precipitated.”

Kendyl Harmeling completed her MA Culminating Project titled, “Circumventing Self-Destruction:  A Study on Imposter Syndrome, Affect Dissonance, and the Power of Hospitality in a first-year Graduate Program.” She gave a presentation, “Passing or Trespassing?: Asynchronous Tutoring, Consultant Practices, and Center Ethos” at the 2021 Southeastern Writing Center Association Conference . Kendyl also was a Writing Center Administrative Intern in Fall 2020 and will be joining the UofL Rhetoric and Composition PhD program next year.

Ayaat Ismail was an intern for the Miracle Monocle Literacy Magazine and published a book review with poet Steve Kistulentz in the current issue. She also became managing editor of the Miracle Monocle’s mini anthology called MONSTER.

Demetrius Minnick-Tucker completed his MA Culminating Project, titled, “Sho Baraka’s The Narrative: Hip Hop and the Social Role of the Church.” He will also be joining the Georgia State University Literature PhD program in fall 2021.

Cat Sar completed her creative MA Culminating Project titled, “Ghosted.”

To Senior Year: My Last Words

Demetrius Minnick-Tucker, Writing Consultant

A day most looked for —and for some —a day most prolonged: graduation is an inevitable reality of one’s academic career. And with last assignments and (more sadly) last goodbyes rushing after you as the school year comes to a close, it’s easy to forget the wonder of one’s college experience. So, in an attempt to slow you down and capture your entire academic career before it comes to a screeching end, if you would, join me for a moment of nostalgia. An ode to the graduates:

Attend to the letter forged from this pen,

The days of May-time, gone with the wind…

Seasons come, seasons go,

Experience taught us how to know:

Flower’s blossom, spring-time is here!

Leaves begin to fade, 

Met by a chilling crusade,

It’s clear, winter-time is near.

A generation comes, a generation goes,

That’s how school years often go:

The chapters begun, excited with a glow,

The chapter continues, long studying, only to expect the unknown;

The chapter slows to a close,

The chapter ends on a solemn note; alone.

So the story goes,

Freshman to Senior year. 

Then, young and uncertain, 

Now, matured and determined.

Senior year is here, and I can say I have known

The highs and the lows, 

And the paradox, that senior year

Is as the close of a remarkably happy career:

You’ve heard the applauds,

The criticisms and the assuring nods,

You’ve known what it is to hurt,

Yet, wake up tomorrow for work.

Oh Senior Year! 

What have you meant to me?

You have been like a sweet flower,

Fragrant, and beautiful to behold;

However, Time awoke: beckoning your bower

To join its withering cold.